Vicki Riffle Dylewski had a passion for helping those around her. She was always caring for others and didn’t hesitate to step in when she was needed the most.
The oldest of four siblings growing up in Toronto, Ohio in the 1970s, she naturally stepped in to help raise them. When one of her sisters, Daya Riffle Pethtel, went through a divorce and suddenly became a single mother, Vicki stepped in to help care for her 4-year-old nephew, Cory.
To Cory, she was like a second mother, a guardian of sorts. The two were inseparable.
“She helped raise me,” Cory told Dateline. “That’s the kind of person she was, she was caring and always ready to step in to help whenever someone needed her.”
Not only did Vicki help care for her family over the years, her compassionate nature and intelligence led her to a career as a nurse anesthetist. She continued to give her time to others while working endless shifts at the local hospital.
While Vicki loved children, she couldn’t have any of her own and after a few years of marriage to her husband Tony Dylewski, she filed for divorce in April 1981 and moved back to her parents’ home.
A few days later Vicki was gone and her family’s world fell apart.
“One day she was there, keeping us together,” Vicki’s sister Daya told Dateline. “And the next, she was gone. And after that, well, it was tough. And it was a blur. We got through somehow, but it took some time.”
Vicki and Daya’s youngest sister, Lori Riffle, was only 16 years old when Vicki left their family’s home to head out for a jog around 4 p.m. on April 20, 1981.
“I still remember hearing her talk and seeing her leave,” Lori told Dateline. Lori is now 56 and living in North Carolina. “I had no idea that would be the last time any of us would see her alive.”
In previous local news coverage, Vicki’s mother, Edna Riffle, explained that her daughter had just finished a 48-hour shift on call and was looking forward to a week off. She went on to say her daughter slept for a while and then around 4 p.m. told her mother she was going to go for a jog.
But Vicki never returned home that evening.
The next morning, her parents officially filed a missing persons report with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and a search was launched.
It was later that afternoon when a fire protection plane that was out searching, spotted Vicki’s orange toboggan in the Fernwood State Forest, a place she often went running.
Investigators with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office retraced Vicki’s steps and were able to determine that she left her parents’ home in a jogging suit and orange “toboggan,” a knit hat she wore on her head, stopped by a fast-food restaurant for a bite to eat and then parked her green Z280 Datsun near the park office at Fernwood.
After searchers spotted Vicki’s orange toboggan, her fully-clothed body, which had been dumped over an embankment, was quickly recovered from the forest. According to the autopsy report provided to Dateline, Vicki had been shot once in the head at close range.
The report went on to say that she had multiple abrasions that appeared to have been sustained after her death and dried blood on her hands and clothing indicated that she had been shot elsewhere and her body had been “dragged, after death, to the location where it was found.”
Vicki’s youngest sister, Lori, the only one living at home at the time, told Dateline she still vividly remembers her parents breaking the news to her that day.
“I remember coming home from school that day and my parents sitting me down and telling me they had to talk to me,” Lori said. “They told me Vicki had been found dead in Fernwood Park. And I just remember being really shocked, and really sad. It’s something we’ve never gotten over.”
Lori told Dateline that Vicki was more than a big sister, she was a second mother.
“There was such a big age gap between us so she was more like my mother,” Lori said. “I just got my learner's permit and Vicki had been teaching me to drive. She was so patient and caring. None of this made sense. My sister didn’t have enemies. And this is a small town, a small community. This type of thing didn’t happen here.”
Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla, who took office in 1984, three years after Vicki’s murder, told Dateline that Vicki’s case is one that haunts him, and one he’ll never give up on.
“Her case was never closed,” Sheriff Abdalla said. “I’ve never stopped working to solve it, first for her parents -- my heart breaks for them -- and now for her siblings.”
Sheriff Abdalla said his heart breaks that he wasn’t able to solve Vicki’s case before her parents died -- her father, Ted, died in 2013 and their mother, Edna, in 2017.
The couple’s youngest daughter Lori was with their mother when she died in hospice care.
“I was with Mom when she died and before she took her last breath, she told me, ‘I see Daddy and I see Vicki,’” Lori told Dateline. “I told her to go to them. And she did. She died a few minutes after that. I think her suffering is finally over because she’s with my sister.”
For decades, Vicki’s mother Edna had kept in contact with the sheriff, calling every day, every month, every year, asking for updates, hoping for an answer.
“Every time I’d see them, they’d look so sad, those poor parents,” Sheriff Abdalla said. “All I wanted to do was solve this case and give them peace of mind.”
In the years since Vicki’s parents died, and her mother was no longer around to push for answers, the case came to a standstill. Sheriff Abdalla told Dateline he had spent years going over files, but nothing ever led to a resolution.
As April 2021 marked the 40th anniversary of Vicki’s murder, Daya’s son, Cory, decided it was his turn to help his aunt, the one who had given so much to others in her short lifetime.
“Her story has always been part of our lives,” Cory told Dateline. “And we’ve always wanted to know the truth, and wanted to get justice. But now, we’re on this crusade. And I really think we’re onto something.”
Along with his cousin, Chuck Watson, and with the help of other family members, Cory has been utilizing social media and other resources to try to solve his aunt’s murder.
Vicki’s brother, Ted, also decided it was time to “stir the pot” and contacted Sheriff Abdalla himself. Just a few weeks ago, the family was able to meet with investigators and go over Vicki’s case.
“Nothing can bring my sister back,” Ted told Dateline. “But we can try and get justice for her. She deserves that much.”
Ted, who was studying engineering at Ohio State University at the time of Vicki’s murder in 1981, said he and his sister were a lot alike.
“We were both strong-willed, stubborn,” he said with a laugh. “She was an intelligent, attractive young woman. She was going to live a great life. But it was taken away from her.”
Vicki’s family tells Dateline they can’t imagine who would want to hurt her.
“She was kind and loving and only wanted to help others, which I think is what ended up getting her killed,” Daya said, her voice breaking. “She was the best sister and most loving aunt, second mother really, to my son.”
Throughout the years, the family has believed and still believes that Vicki knew her killer. Lori pointed out that her sister was shot at close range, indicating that it was someone she let get close to her.
“Whoever shot her knew exactly where to put the gun on her neck to kill her instantly,” Lori said. “And it was somebody she let in her space.”
Several people have been questioned and even polygraphed, including her husband and her close friends, according to the sheriff, but were cleared by investigators on the case at the time and no suspect has ever been publicly named. Three months after her death, Vicki’s body was exhumed but her family said nothing ever came from the findings.
Now, just a few weeks after the 40th anniversary of Vicki’s murder, Sheriff Abdalla tells Dateline they have questioned a new potential suspect, but wouldn’t provide further details due to the case being an ongoing investigation.
According to the autopsy report, fingernail clippings were collected, but with the lack of DNA technology in the 1980s, no testing was ever done. Sheriff Abdalla said evidence collected from the scene and Vicki’s body at the time is being resubmitted for testing.
“I truly think we’ll get our answer if this evidence, and the fingernail clippings are tested,” Vicki’s brother Ted told Dateline. “Whoever it was, they stole a life. They stole Vicki’s life. And we’re going to find out who it was. It didn’t just impact her life, it impacted all of our lives.”
The family tells Dateline they’ve always wanted Vicki’s case to be solved for their parents, but are now driven to solve it for Vicki - justice for a life taken away. And her nephew, the one she made such a huge impact on in such a short time, is determined to see it happen.
“I only really started this crusade a month or so ago,” Cory told Dateline. “But I feel like I’m on the trail of something. Justice for my aunt -- it’s happening. We’re not stopping.”
Anyone with information that may help solve Vicki’s case is asked to call the Jefferson County Ohio Sheriff's Office at 740-283-8600.